This is really cool stuff. A marriage that will last. By marriage of water and fire, sous vide with the grill and smoker, we can achieve extraordinary results, in some cases, better than with either cooking method on its own. You can get incredibly tender, juicy, safe, and flavorful foods. You can look forward to AmazingRibs.com writing more about this one-of-a-kind technique and developing more recipes.
Here's how it works
In case sous vide (pronounced soo veed) is new to you, here's a primer: The technique is an extension of a concept that barbecue fans know well: Low and slow cooking. You will be hearing a lot more about it in the next few years, and many of you will find a sous vide device among your holiday gifts. Sous vide is a hot trend in cooking.
The genius of it is that the food can never get hotter than your sous vide temperature. Take a steak, for example. If you grill a steak, your grill is typically in the 400°F or more range and the meat is right over intense infrared radiant heat. Getting it cooked properly is like catching a bus that won't stop. You've got to jump on as it goes by, and you have a very short window of time before the bus passes you and the meat is overcooked. If you jump too soon, the meat is undercooked.
When cooking sous vide, you slip the food into a vacuum bag or you can put it in a plastic zipper bag and slide the bag into a pot of water so that the water pressure pushes the air out of the bag, then zip it up.
Then you put a special heater called an immersion circulator in the pot of water, where it warms and circulates it. This device heats the water precisely to a temp you choose, say 131°F for perfect medium rare steak. The food in the bag heats to that temp and it can never get any hotter. It can never get to 132°F or more, so the meat can never be overcooked. You get predictable results with precision temp control.
Contrast that with conventional cooking. Let's take a tough cut of meat like flank steak. Let's take a tough cut of meat like flank steak. From the belly area of the steer, it is a hardworking muscle loaded with connective tissue. It is also a thin tapering muscle, usually 1/2" think on one end and 1" thick on the other. If you sear it over high heat the energy moves inward and by the time you have developed a flavorful brown crust, the heat overcooks a layer beneath the surface so this cut is often half overcooked.
But in a sous vide bath for 8 hours at 131°F, it can become as tender as a ribeye. Cooking sous vide heats the meat to a uniform temp from bumper to bumper so nothing is overcooked. You can leave the food in the bath for hours, even days. We know that low and slow tenderizes and moisturizes meats by melting connective tissue that surrounds muscle fibers and bundles and rendering fat (see my article on meat science). The result is very tender juicy food, even if you start with a tough cut. Sous vide low and slow even tenderizes woody vegetables by softening tough structural components.
The secret to tenderness is that breaking down connective tissue isn't just a matter of temperature. It is a matter of time AND temp. At these temps enzymes kick in and have plenty of time to do their magic. That is why low and slow barbecue works. So even though you might be cooking at 131°F, the longer cook times at temps enzymes love helps tenderize and the lower cook temps prevent things from getting tough.
Problems with sous vide
Sous vide is not perfect.
- Cook at too low a temp, below 131°F, and you have a wonderful environment for bacterial growth.
- A lot of liquid comes out of meat and into the bag, depending on the cooking temp.
- You can put butter and herbs in the bag, but the flavors cannot penetrate most meats, and with all the water in the bag, the flavor is diluted so it barely impacts the surface.
- You can leave it in the bag too long and that will dry it out. You can cook at too high a temp and that will dry it out. Yes, food floating in liquid can get dry because when proteins shrink, they squeeze out moisture.
- When meat comes out of the bag, it is butt ugly and it lacks the rich flavors that are created when you sear and brown foods, the flavors created by the Maillard reaction. Many people throw the meat in a hot pan or onto the grill to sear it. This is a great technique and you end up with super tender meat, but less flavor than if it was cooked on the grill from start to finish.
I love what the grill does with sous vide, especially a charcoal grill. I take it out of the bag and let it cool a bit, and then toss it on a hot grill. Sear the meat on a scorching hot grill, lid up so that the energy is concentrated on only one side at a time and so that when you flip, it allows the energy to bleed off into the air rather than push down into the meat overcooking it. In a few minutes, you have an extraordinarily tender steak, with a nice crisp complex sear, and a little smoky flavor. This is the similar to the reverse sear BBQ technique. But the crust does not have as much flavor as it would have had if the meat had been cooked entirely on the grill, especially if you used a flavorful rub and reverse seared. So you have a tradeoff: Tenderness or flavor. For a tough cut like flank steak, sous-vide-que is a great choice. For a tender cut like filet mignon or a thick ribeye, reverse sear.
It gets better. When the meat comes out of the bag, it can go into a smoker. All it takes is 30 minutes in smoky air and you will taste it. And the internal temp of the meat barely rises. Another trick is to chill the food when it comes out of the water bath and smoke or sear it a day or three later. This process even seems to improve the flavor!
Close Proximity Smoking
Check out how we cooked this turkey breast by sous viding it at 131°F for 12 hours, and then searing it on a special cooking surface called GrillGrates with wood pellets just a fraction of an inch below the meat to add smoke flavor in a hurry. My friend Greg Rempe calls my little innovation CPS, Close Proximity Smoking.
A little history
Sous vide is not really new. Chris Young of ChefSteps, the people who make Joule, says "It began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with important work being done independently by the American Ambrose T. McGuckian, the French chef George Pralus, and the French food scientist Bruno Goussault. The first sous vide meal was almost certainly served at the Holiday Inn in Greensboro, SC in 1970 by McGuckian who had been an employee of Grace Cryovac and had been involved with a program to improve hospital food in Sweden in the late 1960s. This program utilized vacuum packaging of food that Graze Cryovac had originally developed in conjunction with NASA and the space program."
But the equipment was originally bulky and expensive. It caught on with restaurants, especially those who served large parties, because they could toss 300 bagged sirloins in the warm water, and when it was time to serve, pull them out and toss them on a scorching hot griddle. Nice way to serve perfectly cooked tender meals in a hurry! Fortunately, in the past few years, the devices have become suitable for home use and prices have come down.
There are many options. Sous Vide Supreme and a few others make a breadbox size tub that has a built in heater, but no circulator. I much prefer the stick types like Anova and Joule, both of which are now under $200. Both have models that can use either bluetooth or wifi. My favorite is Joule (pronounced jool, it is a scientific term for a tiny measurement of energy, and a pun on jewel). It was introduced in fall of 2016 by the really smart science oriented chefs at ChefSteps who helped create the landmark 6 volume set of cookbooks, Modernist Cuisine. Joule is the best of the many I have tested. It is narrower than a stick blender, about the size of an old-fashioned flashlight. It has a strong magnet in the bottom that holds it upright in a steel or enamel pan (some stainless steel is not magnetic). It also has a well designed clip that can hold it onto a pot. Unlike the competition, it is water resistant, meaning it can be splashed but not submerged. It also heats the water faster than others. The app that controls it is where it really shines. It has excellent tutorials, videos, and recipes, and it is frequently updated. You no longer need reference tables to select cooking times and temps. The app asks you what kind of meat you're cooking, if it's frozen, how thick it is, and what level of doneness you want, and in case you aren't sure, you can click on a picture. It also talks to both Bluetooth and wifi. The app is backed by a website from the manufacturers, ChefSteps.com, and is loaded with technique, thoroughly tested recipes, and beautiful videos. Here's a snapshot of the app. And yes, you can use sous vide to make medium rare burgers safe.
It has one drawback: There is no display on the device to tell you the water temp or to control the temp. It all must be done via smartphone or tablet. This is no problem as long as you and Joule have a connection. But if one of you lose contact with wifi or the internet, it can shut down and your meal can spoil. My home has pretty reliable wifi, so no problemo. Click here for more info and to order it.
If your machine doesn't come with an app or the app isn't techie enough for you, SousVide Dash is an iOS app that is well respected. Prof. Blonder says "dreadful interface, but all the bells and whistles you might ever want. And then some. You can adjust basic information like heat transfer coefficients between the bath, the plastic bag, and the meat. I checked a few predictions with actual measurements and with a bit of tweaking, it was quite close. Note there is always some uncertainty due to current patterns in the bath. Their model assumes water at the same temp flows equally on all sides of the sous vide bag, which is often not true, especially if you overload the bath. Also, the kill predictions for listeria and salmonella are only a guide, as it depends on heating rate, pH, exact species, etc. But, you'd have trouble improving on this calculator for accuracy."
What about the bags? Sous vide means "under vacuum" because the food was originally packed in special thick plastic bags with a vacuum machine like a FoodSaver that sucked out all the air and heat sealed it. But you don't need a vacuum sealer. Any old food grade freezer safe zipper bag will do. You can push the air out by gently slipping the bag under water and zipping it closed as the water approaches the top. Archimede's principle insures most of the air is out. Contrary to popular opinion, we don't need the air out for safety; we want it out so the meat is in contact with the bag and the bag in contact with the heat source, the water. An air bubble acts like an insulator. Here's how to seal meat in a plain old zipper bag for sous vide cooking:
Depending on cooking time and temp, there can be still significant water loss in the bag. Those juices could be the basis for a sauce, but most pro chefs don't bother. Chef Jensen Lorenzen of The Larder Meat Co. in San Luis Obisp, CA is a sous vide expeert. He has experimented with the juices in the bag after cooking. He says, "It typically has a great deal of myoglobin in it, which coagulates when you try to reduce it. If you have any fat in the bag that can break your sauce. I’ve also found that the flavor combo from herbs, salt, and myoglobin, intensified by cooking in a bag, makes for a strange mix of flavors. You just don’t get the evaporative benefits of traditional cooking methods. You can strain it out and add wine, stock, etc., but by that point you might as well be using demi-glace or stock." Remember, when you normally make a pan sauce, there are brown bits from the searing in the pan, and they are loaded with concentrated flavors from the evaporation, maillard reaction and caramelization.
What about microbes? With sous vide, food is often cooked at temps below USDA recommendations. While USDA temps are simplified for easy consumer guidance, what they don't tell you is that you can get safe food, pasteurized, at temps below the recommended USDA guidelines. How? By cooking it longer. As I explain in my article on meat temperatures, pasteurization of meat is not just a matter of temperature. It is a measure of temperature, time, how much contamination there is (load), and the desired kill rate, all taken together. That article explains in detail the science behind the concept based on extensive research by USDA, FDA, and many other scientists. In short: According to USDA, you can pasteurize turkey instantly when the internal temp hits 165°F, but it takes 27 seconds at 160°F, 5 minutes at 150°F, and 82 minutes at 136°F. So cooking below USDA recommended temps can be safe, as long as you cook for a longer time and don't set the temp too low.
Many websites recommend sous vide in the 120 to 130°F range and many people believe that over 120°F bacteria can't grow. Not so, says ML Tortorello, PhD, Chief of the Food Technology branch in the Division of Food Processing Science & Technology at FDA, Editor of Food Microbiology, a peer reviewed journal, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology 2nd Edition. "It is true that most foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, and pathogenic strains of E. coli, cannot grow at 120°F, but that is an easy temp for thermophilic bacteria [bacteria that like warm temps]. Some examples of foodborne pathogens that can grow at higher temps are Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus which has a maximum growth temp of 131°F." So, to be safe we recommend you cook red meat, pork, and poultry at 131°F and above. Besides, 131°F is medium rare, the temp at which most beef steaks reach optimum tenderness and juiciness, and it's below the optimum temps for pork, chicken, and turkey. Even after the final sear step, the internal temps usually remain under 135°F, still medium-rare, very tender, and juicy. So 131°F is the minimum temp I shoot for. For specific temps, check our growing section of recipes.
Safety tip: Raw garlic, onion, and herbs can harbor bacterial spores that may not be killed even at 131F so it is a good idea not to use them in a sous vide bag. Botulism spores are especially hard to kill at typical sous vide temps. Besides, flavor molecules from herbs and spices are too large to penetrate much beyond the surface. It is far more effective to season food after it comes out of the bag.
Safety tip: Never needle tenderize with a jaccard tenderizer. These tiny blades can push surface contamination deep into the meat where it is cooler and pathogens can grow. And for similar reasons, it is best not to cook ground meats sous vide.
Safety tip: Heat the water to the desired temp before putting the meat in.
Does sous vide have legs?
Sous vide is more than a splash in the pot followed by a flash in the grill. Without a doubt it will be used extensively by restaurateurs and caterers. Will it be a hit at home? Is this the next fondue pot? The cool wedding gift you use for a year and then it goes into the attic?
At the current price point, under $200, I suspect tens of thousands will be sold in the coming years. But because the food must be submerged 4 to 40 hours in advance, many of us just won't plan far enough in advance. And because it has greater impact on some foods more than others we won't use it for everything. But I think we will figure out what dishes we like it best for and we'll probably use it much more often than a fondue pot. I think it will become a regular tool in many homes.
What will we use it for? Really tough cuts that will benefit from a sear on the grill like beef flank steak, beef short ribs, corned beef and pastrami, poultry breasts such as duck and goose, and lean pork loin chops. Check out this video of how we used sous vide to make a small cut of beef brisket far better than it is possible in a smoker, and how we made a chuck steak sing. As we continue to experiment this list will grow. And if you want to dig deeper into this cooking method, check out our Deep Dive Guide, Sous Vide Que: How to Deliciously Marry the Grill and Smoker with Sous Vide.